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Major Joshua Pilcher
Hatter, Fur Trader
& Superintendent of Indian Affairs
by  P. Davidson-Peters © 2000


In 1790, the year tax assessor and friend Daniel Brown visited the home of Joshua and Nancy Pilcher, they had a household of eight children - Shadrach, Fielding, Margaret, Moses, Benjamin, Zachariah, two year-old John, and their infant son Joshua who had been born on the 15th of March.

Working from sunup to sundown plowing and planting his fields of grain and tobacco, and caring for the cattle and hogs, Joshua was able to do little more than provide a meager living for his family.  He began to fall into debt, and believing there was little future for him or his children who would likely grow up as illiterate as he and his wife, Joshua decided to leave Virginia in 1793 for the new land of Kentucky, and after five hundred miles of travel, the family reached Lexington.

The town, which was not yet a major market place, did consist of about three or four hundred homes clustered around the courthouse, and had shops belonging to shoemakers, blacksmiths, hatters, and a local brewer who supplied the town taverns. 

After carefully searching for land, Joshua chose a few acres in the summer of 1795 and arranged to share crop a tract south of town.  A year later, records indicate Joshua had paid taxes on twice as much livestock as he had owned in Virginia, and by 1804 had paid taxes for a slave.

It was here that Joshua and Nancy's children grew to adulthood, left the farm and married. Their son Shadrach married Sarah Proctor at the age of twenty-nine, and they continued to live in Fayette County where they raised a family of four sons: Ezekiel, Moses, Jeptha Dudley and Shadrach H.; and three daughters - Sarah who married John Paine, Mary who married Anderson Foreman, and Margaret who married Greenbury True.

Joshua’s son Moses lived in Jessamine county, married Elizabeth Collins and was the father of at least Merritt S. and Nancy Pilcher.  Son Fielding became a lieutenant in the Kentucky militia, moved to Woodford County and was the father of at least Mason and Lewis Pilcher.  Daughter Margaret married Hiram Shaw who was a merchant hatter, on Christmas day of 1800 and lived in Lexington where they raised a family of seven children - Sarah, Nathaniel, Ann, Ammi, Hiram, Nancy, and John Pilcher Shaw.

Young Joshua who had worked in the fields and tended to the stock, moved to Lexington.  He became an apprentice hatter under his brother-in-law, Hiram Shaw, who ran a hatter's shop situated on the corner of Main and Broadway; and within a few years had learned the hatter's trade.

It’s possible that during his time as an apprentice hatter, Joshua had also studied a bit of medicine. Although no records indicate he had any formal training, it’s probable by his familiarity with medicine in his later years with the Indians, that he may have studied the medical books in the library, bookstores, or some of the private collections of a reputable physician who was practicing in Lexington.

What he had intended to do with his life prior to 1810, one cannot say, but in the mid-summer of that year his father Joshua died at the age of sixty-one, and left his him a four-year-old brown horse and his portion of the household goods. With his widowed mother settled with one of his brothers or possibly his sister Margaret, young Joshua decided to strike out on his own and headed to Nashville - a town only one-third the size of Lexington.

He arrived in late spring, and with a limited amount of capital invested carefully, negotiating with a merchant named John Lowry - possibly the same or of the same Lowry family who had been a prominent dealer in furs and hats in Lexington.  He bought his interest in the Hat Store at Nashville, and like his father, decided not to rent rather than own the building - which turned out to be a fortunate decision because in the winter of 1811-1812 major earthquakes rocked the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, and many of the buildings were "thrown down."

While in Nashville the next three years, Joshua earned a comfortable living as a merchant-craftsman and chose not to enlist to fight for the southwestern frontier in the War of 1812 as did his brother Shadrach, his nephews, and his cousins.  Instead, he involved himself in the business which on the evening of March 2nd of 1814, suffered damage when a fire broke out in Anthony Foster's home.  He was also admitted to membership in the Masonic Grand Lodge of Tennessee, but in 1814 announced he was closing his shop in Nashville and calling upon his customers to settle their accounts.

He set out again, this time to the Missouri Territory which was new and largely undeveloped.  His destination was St. Louis, and not long after his arrival, invested his capital in a business partnership with N.S. Anderson. Their business, known as Anderson.& Pilcher, sold dry goods, rented storage space to other merchants, and may have dealt in a wide variety of general merchandise, but the partnership was short-lived when his partner died in the summer of 1816.

Joshua then became partner to a fellow-Virginian by the name of Thomas F. Riddick, who was an influential merchant, politician, and banker who had lived in St. Louis ten or twelve years. They opened a downtown auction house in November of 1816 which was so conveniently located that the Bank of Saint Louis rented space there temporarily as did the Christ Church which was the first Protestant Episcopal congregation to have organized west of the Mississippi.

During this time, Joshua joined the Masons who finally organized a permanent lodge in Missouri, and was involved in other enterprises including the lead-processing industry at Herculaneum and the banking business of which his partner had been involved, and was somewhat politically involved.

Riddick had been one of the original bank commissioners of the Bank of Saint Louis which had struggled then failed, and during this time the Bank of Missouri had opened, and Riddick, Benton and probably Joshua, allied themselves to the new institution which was backed by several powerful French families who needed a bank to support their investment in the fur trade north and west of St. Louis.

Joshua now knew more and more about the fur trade, having learned the general structure of the fur trade through his Masonic brothers, and though he had little knowledge of the Indian country, decided to join the Missouri Fur Company.  He joined in the summer or early fall of 1819 and may have purchased his portion of shares from the capital he borrowed on a business trip to New Orleans and Havana in the spring of that year.

The investment was a risk since the fur trade was a gamble, but Joshua had faith in its founder Manuel Lisa.  Lisa was a Creole French trader who had organized the company in about 1808 and had as his partners such men as William Clark, Pierre Chouteau, Auguste Chouteau and Sylvester Labbadie.  Believing a handsome profit was attainable if the company could push the Indian trade closer to the Rockies and the headwaters of the Missouri as Lisa planned to do, he invested with Thomas Hempstead, Andrew Woods, Joseph Perkins (one of Joshua's Masonic brother), Moses B. Carson (another Mason and brother of Kit Carson), and John B. Zenoni - and hoped for the best.

While Manuel Lisa remained at Fort Lisa at Council Bluff, Joshua moved from Indian camp to Indian camp trading for furs during the unusually bitter winter of 1819-1820. As he began learning the trade, Lisa's health deteriorated and he left for St. Louis in early April leaving Joshua at Council Bluffs to observe the details of the fur trade.  But Lisa's health deteriorated and he died the morning of August 12th with the hope that his partners would persevere in the fur trade despite supply problems, losses to the Indians and larceny in St. Louis.  But it would not come to be - after five years of attempting to make the company a success, The Missouri Fur Company became bankrupt and they closed its books forever.

That fall or winter, Joshua wrote to friends in Washington D.C. requesting an appointment as united States Consul at Chihuahua. On the 5th of March 1825, President Adams nominated Joshua for the position and the Senate consented to it two days later. The immediate confirmation and the timing of the appointment suggests Joshua might have favored Adams in the controversial election of 1824, and although his friend Benton had supported Clay, it seems he backed Joshua for this consular post.  Hoping to encourage American trade in the Southwest, Benton also shepherded a bill through the Senate and into law early in 1825 which appropriated $30,000 for an immediate survey of the Santa Fe Trail, but due to a long illness Joshua was unable to leave the country and fulfill this position.

Using the last of his capital, Joshua and his former partners assembled a party of forty-five mounted men in September of 1827, and led pack horses laden with goods and equipment west from Council Bluffs toward the Platte River. They moved up the valley of the Platte to the forks of the river in western Nebraska but were on foot by time they reached the upper Sweetwater west of the north fork of the Platte because the Crow Indians had stolen their horses.

With Winter upon them, they cached whatever merchandise and property their men were unable to carry, and led them over the snow-covered Continental Divide, down into the valley of the Colorado River, and encamped there for the winter. They traded horses from the Snake Indians and when the weather improved in spring, one of the partners re-crossed the pass and dug up the cache only to find that seepage had destroyed a considerable part of the merchandise.

From here they moved west to Bear Lake for the summer rendezvous of 1828 and sold their remaining goods to the trappers.  Picking their way slowly over the mountains, they trapped a few beaver and reached Clark's Fork in western Montana where they made winter camp while the snow drifted and waited for spring.

It wasn't until Joshua accepted an appointment as a sub-agent, that he lived in one location for more than a few months.  During this period of time between spring of 1833 and 1835, Joshua seldom left the Council Bluffs area and took a wife - possibly Cabanné's former "servant woman" who was the half-blood daughter of a french trader named Michel Barada and an Omaha woman. In early 1834 she gave birth to a son, John Pilcher, and died not long after of cholera. Joshua showed little concern for the child and he was taken and raised by Big Elk, an Omaha chief.  The Omaha tribe raised him, but he kept his family name of Pilcher and grew up on the Omaha reservation in eastern Nebraska.  He married Harriet Arlington, fathered ten children, and when he died in January 1898 near Walthill, Nebraska, had left dozens of descendants bearing the Pilcher name.

In the spring of 1835, Joshua was appointed sub-agent for a portion of the Sioux Indians high up on the Missouri River. Two years later he was nominated by President Van Buren as Indian Agent to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Ponca Indians; and four years later was nominated for and supported by President Van Buren, to become Superintendent of Indian Affairs over thirty-five agents, sub-agents, interpreters, blacksmiths, farmers, and others who worked at Fort Leavenworth, Council Bluffs, the Upper Missouri, and the Osage River.

The stress of the position, which was made more difficult by the additional task of dispersing agent for the jurisdictions of St. Louis, Iowa, and Wisconsin, weakened him more as he had never fully improved from the previous bouts of exposure and suspecting his death was to follow shortly, he wrote up his will on the 29th of May requesting to be buried in Lot No. 10 in St. Luke Square of the Episcopal Cemetery. - He appointed Edward Brooks, Druggist of the City of City Louis, as his sole Exector, and   first stated, "Should I die on my tour to the South..." His will mentions Susan Brooks, sister Margaret Shaw of Lexington and her sons Nathaniel and Hiram; John Haverty of St. Louis, Mrs. Eliz M. Riddick, wife of the late Colonel Thomas F. Riddick; daughter of Charles P. Billon; and John Randolph Benton, the only son of Colonel Thomas H. Benton. 

Joshua was laid to rest in St. Louis in June of 1843, and almost fifty years later, a handful of interesting articles appeared in two St. Louis newspapers concerning him and a casket that was found. The first was published in the St. Louis Republic on December 1st 1892, headline reading: "An Old Resident's Recollections About a Wealthy Fur Trade Who Died Fifty  Years Ago - The Iron Coffin May Have Been Pilcher's."  This article was followed up by others and the matter apparently resolved in the St. Louis Star published on the 6th of December.  This paper read in part: "Joseph Warren Pilcher, the man who has been for the past ten days entertained by newspapers accounts of how his body had been disinterred after forty years, walked into the Four Courts yesterday afternoon and requested the privilege of a statement. Mr. Pilcher has borne patiently with lengthy obituaries of himself, but he has felt that he must draw the line somewhere, and therefore, when he read the statement that he had been ejected for rent, he emerged from his retirement and made a statement.

Mr. Joseph Warren Pilcher explained in this news article that the man referred to was his grand-uncle, Joshua Pilcher, who had been found dead in his bed on the morning after a banquet at Senator Bentons, and that his father Ezekiel was a great favorite with the fur trader. It was, he stated, a great surprise to his father that he had not been remembered in the will and employed a Lexington lawyer to clear up the mystery of the will and his grand-uncle's sudden death. The will did not appear to Mr. Pilcher to have been that of a business man and it was his opinion that Joshua Pilcher never made the will, but that it was written by the parties named in it.  He had worked to clear up the mystery that surrounded Joshua's death, but dropped the whole affair when the war began.

Although the casket (which was dug up and created quite a stir in 1892) turned out not to be that of the fur trader, Joshua's life was later chronicled in a book by John E. Sunder, and is mentioned in many others regarding the fur American fur trade.  He is remembered by his Pilcher descendants not only as a hatter, merchant, fur trader, and Indian Agent, but a man of integrity and good will who once was as his name states - a maker of furs.

See additional website by P. Davidson-Peters "Early St. Louis"
Regarding Joshua Pilcher & the American Fur Trade

  • Will of Joshua Pilcher - Written 3 May 1810 and probated August 1810 mentioning wife Nancy, son Joshua and grandsons Merritt and Prestley Pilcher - wife Nancy Executrix - Will Book B, p. 152 Fayette County Ky.
  • Joshua Pilcher, A Fur Trader and Indian Agent by John E. Sunder.
  • Will of Joshua Pilcher dated 29 May 1843, St.Louis, MO - Copy on file at the Missouri Historical Society.
  • Death of Major Joshua Pilcher dated 8 June 1843 - The Missouri Reporter, Copy on file at Missouri Historical Society.
  • Letter of Kentucky State Historical Society to Adelaide Pilcher Welzenbach of Peoria, IL dated 12 Dec 1938 - Copy on file at the Kentucky State Historical Society.
  • The American West by Dee Brown.
  • Across the Wide Missouri by Bernardo Devoto.
  • Narratives of America, The Wilderness Chronicles: The Frontiersmen, Wilderness Empire, The Conquerors, The Wilderness War, Gateway to Empire, and Twilight of Empire by Allan W. Eckert.
  • The Beaver Men, Spearheads of Empire by Mari Sandoz.
Following His Footsteps: Joshua Pilcher, Successor to William Clark; Blog by P. Davidson-Peters, April 2011
Tribal Fever by Landon Y. Jones; Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005
St. Louis Missouri Fur Company - Articles of Association
Joshua Pilcher, Presented by
The Upper Missouri Fur Trade - Its Methods of Operation, Presented by the National Park Service
The Fur Trade: "Beaver Powered Mountaineering" by Emily Zimmerman, University of Virginia's American Studies Project


Updated 30 Jun 2015
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